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House party recalls historic first gig

November 09, 2020

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first performance ever given at the Sydney Opera House – before the construction of the sails had even begun.

In 1960, American singer, actor and passionate rights activist Paul Robeson christened the Opera House with a lunch time treat for construction workers, climbing scaffolding on the building site to perform his signature Ol’ Man River.

The impromptu concert was re-enactedon the front steps of the Opera House today for construction workers currently refurbishing the precinct.

A union meeting washeld at morning “smoko” where the workers heard acclaimed soprano Rachel Bate, a coal miner's daughter from the Illawarra, recreate the performance with a rendition of Ol Man River and The Ballad of Joe Hill, Robeson’s anthem for the labour movement that he also sang on the day.

At the gathering, organised by the South Coast Labour Council (SCLC), were members of the original audience who heard Robeson’s historic performance.

Due to COVID restrictions on audience sizes, the re-enactment was restricted to invited guests and the media but was streamed by the Labour Council.

In light of the contemporary civil rights and other struggles in the US and the stature of Paul Robeson and his achievements, the performances will be live streamed to our friends in America as well,” SCLC secretary Arthur Rorris said.

Robeson, who invoked the Fifth Amendment in 1956 when called before the McCarthyist House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communists, was touring.

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© New South Wales Teachers Federation. All Rights Reserved.

Authorised by John Dixon, General Secretary, NSW Teachers Federation, 23-33 Mary St. Surry Hills NSW 2010

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